On 28 May 2011, five years will pass since hot mud and poisonous gas first spewed outside of the Banjar-Panji 1 gas exploration well in Sidoarjo, East Java, Indonesia. Last year I went to Sidoarjo to see with my own eyes the damage of what could be the biggest forgotten environmental disaster in Indonesia. In a country that is ridden with amnesia, here are some reminders – pictures and untold stories of the remnants of Sidoarjo.
My grandfather passed away last year and I decided to pay my respect while visiting my extended family in Malang, before I head to Singapore for my studies. I booked a flight to Surabaya and on my way to Malang, I wanted to pass by Sidoarjo to see the condition of the mud flow disaster myself.
I stopped in the middle of the road right next to the rail tracks and as soon as I got out of the car, the smell of gas and sulphur cuts through my nose and at some points I can feel a sting in my lungs.
After paying Rp. 10.000 for the mud flow location “entrance fee”, I climbed my way up the dike that contained the hot mud and was immediately appalled by the vast area that this disaster have plundered. Any layperson with the slightest common sense will know that this area is an unhealthy and dangerous place to live in.
Apart from the obvious “danger” sign, I can see smoke in the background and I can hear bubbles popping just like when you’re boiling water in the nearby dike from where I stood. I also saw pipes pumping water into the mud – although I am not sure why.
There was a stark difference in the landscape, whereby you see boundless areas of hot mud on one side and traffic on the other side, only separated by the dike.
Flabbergasted, I was soon approached by Pak Mino, one of the few men there who offered tour guide services around the mud flow location. I can’t remember how much I paid, but this tour guide package will include commentaries and an ojek ride around the attractions. He also sells DVDs about the mud flow to those who are interested.
Pak Mino is one of the many who is affected by the mud flow disaster. As a father of two children, he needed the tour guide job as a makeshift occupation because the factory in which he worked was submerged by the mud. He took me on his motorcycle to a corner where you can see the leftovers of what used to be factories, but what is now just abandoned rooftops.
I’ve seen houses and buildings flooded with water, but never in my life I have seen it flooded with hot mud and poisonous gas.
Pak Mino took me down the dike and across the road, then he showed me a nearby food stall where he said the flames that they used for cooking is from the gas underneath them. The owner of the restaurant never shut it off, because they can’t. I only saw it from outside because the food stall was closed, but I can see the cooking stove, with the flame that never dies.
Soon I realize what Pak Mino meant is that the whole area is dangerous because as soon as someone lights a fire, it has the potential to burn down the place.
Well, apparently someone did, when a resident of a two-story house wanted to lit a cigarette, but what he didn’t know is that the whole place was filled with gas, in the end he blew his own house down. I can see a big hole from where the explosion took place, where it is now a pond filled with hot liquid similar to the one I saw in the dike.
I almost shed a tear, thinking about how many people were displaced from their homes, how many jobs were lost and how many suffered from illness and died out of this misery.
The victims, along with many international and national scientists believed that PT Lapindo Brantas is responsible for this ongoing, man-made, gas-drilling disaster, but unfortunately the Indonesian courts and government decided that they were not the one to blame, because they believed the eruption was caused by the nearby earthquake.
One thing is certain, is that this disaster will not stop soon and it will spread to an even larger area.
Let this be a reminder that when human beings temper with nature, without the proper environmental and safety standards, nature will, inherently, get back at you.